Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Cooking Oil Guide

When it comes to throwing that fillet on the skillet, or frying up the tastiest stir fry this side of the moon, you're going to be using a little bit of oil in that hot, hot pan of yours.  I'm here today to tell you that not all oils are created equal, and while sure, any one of them might give you a nice browned fish or seared chicken, some might actually detract from the health factor that's inherently in the foods you're choosing.  Let's make sure you make the right choice when it comes to choosing an oil, OK?

In terms of your choices, they're actually quite varied.  Oils tend to be very high in calories due to their dense fat content, so as far as calories go, you definitely want to get the most bang for your buck.  So let's get started, and see which cooking oil might best suit your next meal:

Canola Oil:  When it comes to cooking in oil, you'd do well to avoid canola oil, despite it being cheap.  While it is very rich in polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acids, it's an EXTREMELY processed oil that's formed through intense chemical processes.  It's basically an industrial product, and was actually initially intended for usage as a machine lubricant.  As you probably know by now, processed foods can do some serious harm to your body, and while I don't believe canola oil will destroy you single handedly, there are definitely quite a few healthier choices out there.

"Generic" Vegetable Oil (Soybean Oil):  Generic "vegetable oil" is kind of hard to define as one specific oil, but for the most part it's considered refined soybean oil.  When I say refined, that means, you guessed it, it's processed.  In fact, most generic vegetable oil is along the same lines as processed canola oil, in that the polyunsaturated fats it contains are in general too processed and "rancid" to actually be healthy for you.  They're not along the same lines as healthy polyunsaturated fats that come out of nuts, seeds, fish, and other similar foods.  Is vegetable oil unhealthy?  Not disgustingly so, but like I said for canola oil, there are better options out there.

Olive Oil:  Ah, here we go, the original "healthy" oil.  Olive oil is extremely good for you, in that it contains unprocessed, natural, healthful monounsaturated fats, and tons of antioxidants and polyphenols to boot.  Olive oil is great to fry in, especially extra virgin olive oil.  It has a remarkably delicious flavor that can be a fantastic addition to many dishes, and in my personal opinion is one of the best tasting oils out there.  The only downside to olive oil is that it has a relatively low smoke point, and therefore will burn in a pan over 350 F. With extra virgin olive oil, you can avoid this problem somewhat because it has a smoke point of a little over 400 F.

Sunflower Oil:  If you haven't tried sunflower oil before, I would definitely suggest doing so.  It's extremely good for you, very tasty, and very easy to cook with.  It's very high in vitamin E, and contains huge amounts of mono and polyunsaturated fats that are unprocessed (and therefore healthy for your body.)  There are three varieties of sunflower oil, high oleic acid, linoleic acid, and NuSun.  Depending on which type you get, you'll get different amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid ratios, but in general you can't go wrong with any of them.  If you have to choose though, go with the NuSun variety, as it is the least likely to form harmful trans fats when heated.

Peanut Oil:  This is a tasty oil if you enjoy nuts.  I love the taste of peanuts, and therefore a little nuttiness in my food is most welcome.  Peanut oil is another natural, healthy alternative to processed oils, and is very high in monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated, omega-6 fatty acids.  It also has a very high smoke point which means it can be used in recipes requiring high heat.  For the most part, peanut oil is also cheaper than olive oil, so it's a more economic choice for the average health oriented person.  It will impart a little of the nutty flavor into the foods you're cooking, but in my opinion it's quite an enjoyable flavor.

Macadamia Nut Oil:  This is a very interesting cooking oil, and in some ways a very "exotic" option for frying your food.  It's an extremely healthy natural oil, with not only huge benefits from monounsaturated fats (like almost every oil here), but also from containing large amounts of antioxidants such as squaline.  It also contains high amounts of vitamin E, a necessary addition to any healthy diet.  It can also help lower cholesterol due to its healthy fat profile (well, so can almost every oil mentioned, but I had to say it somewhere, right?)

Coconut Oil:  This oil is a little bit different from all the rest, in that it DOESN'T contain many unsaturated fats, and in fact is comprised of almost 90% saturated fats.  Don't worry though, this doesn't mean the oil is unhealthy.  In fact, coconut oil is one of the healthiest oils out there.  It has a high composition of lauric acid, a powerful antioxidant that is also very heart healthy and supports your immune system.  Coconut oil, despite being high in saturated fat, can also help to LOWER bad cholesterol.  It's also quite tasty and can add an exotic flair to any stir fry.  Coconut oil is blatant proof that not all saturated fats are bad, and that they don't deserve the devilish reputation they've been given.

Hopefully that list gave you a little bit better idea of what exactly to look for when buying oil.  In all honesty, it's hard to go wrong when choosing a cooking oil, so don't stress.  Even canola oil, while processed, won't degrade your health, you just won't be getting some of the fantastic nutritional benefits available in other, more natural cooking oils.  Switch it up a little bit, try a new oil every time you get a chance, I guarantee they can really make your meals quite interesting, flavorful, and add a whole new layer of health benefits.

Keep that pan oiled, and those veggies sizzling.  Good Luck!


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